I grew up in a country with modern geographical borders but an identity steeped in history. Though I was born in Karachi, a first-generation Pakistani, my parents were among many Muslim Indians who migrated to the new Dominion of Pakistan in 1947 following the partition of India. They still remember the two countries being one. For me, though, my only sense of belonging is to Pakistan, a land with its own culinary heritage, culture and flavour.
My early childhood was far from conventional. For my first six years I lived on a cargo ship, which my father captained; my mother and I accompanied him on frequent travels around the globe. While sometimes exciting, it was far from an ideal life for a child. There wasn’t much to distract me from the endless sea that stretched out in every direction. However, it was in being away from home that I began to develop a passion for the cuisine of my homeland. With little material connection to Pakistan, my only real experience of it was through visits to see my nani (maternal grandmother) at the end of each journey, as well as watching and helping my mother cook while on board. Her love for food fuelled mine. As she artfully prepared meals in the ship’s tiny galley, the aromas of combined spices, red onions added to hot oil, and basmati gently infused with saffron all linked me with home. In these moments I unconsciously started picking up andaza, the art of sensory cooking and estimation, which is the backbone of Pakistani cooking and will always remain my kitchen philosophy.
We moved back to Pakistan in 1981, when my father decided to become a lawyer. I was still young, and Karachi soon became home. I began to explore and enjoy the comforting cooking of my extended family, my hometown and most importantly my nani.
Karachi is a city where the cuisines of indigenous Sindhis, Hindus, Indian Muslim migrants, Arabs, Persians and many small ethnic communities who settled here centuries ago combine in a unique and eclectic way. My cooking is a marriage of these varied cultures and the influences of both my grandmothers’ heritage. My memories of the food at home are of fish and chicken tikkas on the barbecue, and weekly roadside markets, with stalls adorned with seasonal vegetables and fruit: mangoes, falsa berries and guavas in summer; pomegranates, swat apples and mulberries in winter. Meat markets would be laden with cuts hanging on hooks and dairy stalls boasted steel milk urns packed over ice on dairy stalls, and and raw terracotta bowls of buffalo yoghurt with a thick layer of cream.
Though we went shopping for our produce from markets, much of the southern Pakistani fruits we ate grew in my nani’s garden. Many afternoons after market visits with her I would stay to help her put away shopping – sometimes I would stay just to watch her prepare her beloved fresh carrot pickle, or preserve the tiny lemons picked from her big tree. Most of all, I would await the time of day she would offer me my sweet reward for helping: a rolled chapati with butter and sugar, a gulgulay (aniseed doughnut) or, my favourite, a firni (rice pudding with saffron and cardamom). This is a dessert that has made its way through the ancient cuisines of the Mughals, Persians, Afghans and Arabs to Pakistani homes today: it’s a straightforward recipe that speaks of the diverse historical influences that typify Pakistani food, and it never fails to reinforce in me a sense of culinary identity.
My nani’s firni
Sweet milk, ground rice and aromatic spice combine to create the ultimate comfort food. In Pakistan, firni is both a festive and an everyday dish, traditionally served and set in unglazed terracotta bowls which adds a subtle earthiness to the final flavour.
60g ground rice
500ml whole milk
60g caster sugar
200ml condensed milk
½ tsp freshly ground cardamom
A pinch of saffron
1 tsp rose water or kewra water
1 tbsp pistachios, chopped
1 tsp blanched almonds, chopped
1 tbsp dried edible rose petals
1 In a bowl, soak the ground rice in the water. Bring the milk to the boil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. As soon as it is boiling, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, or until thickened.
2 Add the sugar, condensed milk and soaked ground rice to the milk and return to the boil. Let the milk boil for another 5–7 minutes, stirring constantly. It should start to thicken up now.
3 Add the ground cardamom. The mixture should now be the consistency of thick custard. Keep stirring to prevent it burning. Turn off the heat and stir in the saffron and rose water or kewra. Allow it to cool for a few minutes before pouring the firni into terracotta or glass bowls and top with chopped pistachios and almonds.
4 Chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Decorate with rose petals, and serve cold.
Sindhi masala (whole sea bass)
This recipe traditionally calls for a Sindhi river fish called palla, which is rubbed with a spice blend and barbecued. With more bones than flesh, palla is a tricky fish to eat, but I remember (cautiously!) enjoying every morsel at roadside stalls in Sindhi villages. The fresh flavour of palla is incomparable, but the unusual spice blend also works really well with sea bass or trout.
3 tbsp coriander seeds
2½ tsp green fennel seeds
1 small cinnamon stick
2 long dried red chilli
2 bay leaf
3 tsp amchoor (dried mango powder, optional)
1 tsp ajwain (carom seeds)
1 tsp salt, to taste
2 small garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp turmeric
3 tbsp rice flour or gram flour
Juice of 1 lime
3-4 tbsp water
1 medium sea bass, gutted, with head and tail on
50ml corn oil, for frying
2 tbsp coriander leaves, chopped
½ lime, sliced into 2 pieces
1 Dry-roast the coriander seeds and fennel seeds in a saucepan for 30-40 seconds until the seeds start to lightly brown. Take them off the heat and put in a spice grinder with the cinnamon, red chilli and bay leaf. Grind roughly for 10-12 seconds.
2 Add the blended spices in a bowl together with amchoor, ajwain, salt, crushed garlic, turmeric and rice flour (or gram flour). Bind together by adding the lime juice and water. Mix well into a thick paste.
3 Put the fish in a shallow bowl, rub the paste all over the fish on both sides, and inside its gut.
4 Heat the oil over a frying pan over a medium heat. When hot, reduce the heat slightly to medium low, add the spiced fish and fry for 5-6 minutes on each side, to obtain a thick, crispy crust. Carefully remove the fish from the pan and drain on kitchen paper before serving.
5 Serve garnished with coriander leaves and a slices of lime.
Mustard fermented carrots with turmeric and red chilli
This recipe is inspired by a classic condiment made by various communities in my hometown Karachi. The crushed mustard seeds lightly ferment the carrots, and you can either eat it freshly made with rice and fish, or wait for 2-3 weeks – it gets better with age.
3 carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 tbsp yellow mustard seeds, crushed roughly in a mortar and pestle
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of ½ lime
1 tsp sea salt
1 heaped tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp grated ginger
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
½ tsp crushed red chilli flakes
1 fresh red chilli, chopped finely (seeds removed if preferred)
1 Put all the ingredients into a large, non-metallic bowl and toss until everything is mixed well. Either eat immediately or cover with clingfilm or with non-metallic plate and set aside in a cool place to ferment for up to 2–3 days. Toss the mixture every day.
This keeps for up to a month in a cool, dry place or in the fridge.
- Sumayya Usmani is a food writer and teacher based in Glasgow. Her first book, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes and Memories from Pakistan is published this April (Frances Lincoln)